Episode aired May 6, 2020: Being Your Own Boss

Leah Esutace has extensive experience as both a nonprofit employee and a consultant. As an owner of an agency, she knows the positives and negatives of working for others vs. being your own boss. In this episode, Leah discusses 

  • the importance of building your own brand and leading with authenticity
  • why joining an existing agency is a good idea before going out on your own
  • how vital it is to take care of yourself and
  • her obsession with canoes!

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Welcome to this edition of the ‘Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit’ Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization or agency right away. Today I’m really happy to have with us one of the sectors top smarties, Leah Eustace. Leah, how you doing today?

Leah: I’m great. I would argue with smartie, given I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet.

Ephraim: You can argue but I’m still calling you a smartie. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers. Leah Eustace is President and Head Paddler at Blue Canoe Philanthropy where she specializes in copywriting and storytelling. She’s also a member of the Case Writers, a small group of writers and designers who work with some of North America’s most impactful nonprofits. Her volunteer work is extensive: She’s vice chair of professional development on the AFP global board and sits on the ACFRE credentialing board. Leah is also an AFP master trainer, a stability leader and is currently studying philanthropic psychology through the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy.

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss life as the owner of a consulting agency. Leah, let’s dive right in. What’s the biggest difference between being an employee and being the owner of your own business?

Leah: I would say the biggest difference is going from a position where you’re accountable to a board and leadership who aren’t necessarily uh you know, operating within a culture of philanthropy, to not. And there’s pros and cons to that. So the con as a consultant is that I work with a client and I produce my deliverables and then it’s up to that client really to ensure that everyone who needs to be on board is on board and that doesn’t always happen and that I have no control over that anymore. The pro is I’m not accountable to a board.

Ephraim: That’s a very big pro, very big one. As the owner of a consulting agency, what causes you to worry the most or lose sleep at night?

Leah: I think this is probably common to every consulting firm but it’s the revenue. You know I have to constantly do business development at the same time as I’m delivering to my clients. Especially during a climate like this uh you know, with a pandemic going on. Certainly my work has been shifting and like many people, you know my husband’s been laid off. So that is certainly the biggest thing that’s keeping me up at night- keeping my pipeline going despite these turbulent times. You know what I do is I just remind myself, instead of getting stuck in this week the revenue is tight, I try to think longer term. I know I know that every consulting firm goes like this and I will come out the other side just fine. But it’s a constant check in with myself: don’t panic about what’s happening today, think about the long term and it’ll be just fine.

Ephraim: That’s a great attitude, always think about the long term. Let’s look at some actionable items. There’s a lot of competition out there. Could you please tell us three things that business owners should be doing to differentiate themselves in the market?

Leah: Absolutely I think the biggest thing is leading with authenticity. Your story is your own story and nobody else has the same story as you. So putting that out there in whatever way makes sense and is comfortable, I think is kind of by far the biggest thing. I practice authenticity really deliberately on a daily basis and you know I have clients approach me because I am like that. I probably have potential clients who won’t approach me because I’m like that, which is fine.

The other thing is try not to be all things to all people. That’s another big one. Certainly when I started out on the Consultancy side I, you know, with that financial panic mentality I had going on at first, I just took everything, I’ll do anything. That certainly doesn’t make me different from everybody else. So I’ve deliberately over the last couple of years narrowed in my focus to the three things that I think I’m really excellent at, that there’s a market for and that people will pay me for. It took me two years to do that. I think certainly as a single solopreneur business owner, it was really hard to say no at first. That’s something I’ve had to practice over the years. That’s two things, not three. Is that okay?

Ephraim: That is perfect because both of those are very very important for all small business owners to know and definitely to practice. An employee who’s considering setting up their own shop, what should they take into consideration? Or let’s sharpen it a little bit, what do you wish you would have known in advance before you made the move to becoming a solopreneur?

Leah: Yeah, that’s that’s a good question and I think there’s two main things. One is building your personal brand to be very strong before you step out on your own. And that is something that I’ve only realized in hindsight was a huge benefit was my really large network that I’d built up partly through all of my volunteer work with AFP. All of my first clients came from my AFP. They jumped at it. It was amazing. You know friends and colleagues bringing me business right from the start. And you know there’s a few ways you can build up that network: One is kind of making sure you’re out there on social media as you yourself, not as your organization, although you can certainly tie it in there. Doing things like for me Linkedin is a huge source of network and referrals and so on. So being deliberate about what I would post, doing blog posts that go up onto Linkedin and just building building building. You want to be sure you have that really solid base to start from before you jump out on your own.

I think the other thing that really has benefited me now was the fact that I was actually with a larger agency for 12 years before I went out on my own. So I really, you know, was an amazing experience with amazing colleagues and it was kind of a gentle introduction to the consulting side because there was this group of people. There was someone in charge of business development, someone in charge of the finances. I’m forever grateful for that experience because it taught me both… well, you know it allowed me to make a few mistakes along the way and to learn and made going out on my own I think that much more of a solid endeavor. So folks who are thinking of going out on their own may want to consider joining with a group of people initially, just getting their feet wet, absorbing information, learning before putting out their own shingle.

Ephraim: That’s an excellent piece of advice. You recently ran a series of webinars on the issue of mental health. What are some of the ways a small business owner can take better care of themselves on the day day-to-day?

Leah: Yeah that’s a really good question, especially when you’re a solopreneur. So I don’t remember the last time I took a vacation, because you really can’t, right? I’ll take a day here and there. You have to find what works for you and what I say to everyone is: You need to put your own oxygen mask on first. So you’re no good to your family, you’re no good to your clients, you’re no good to the outside world if you are not in a strong place yourself, if you’re not taking care of yourself and that looks different for everyone.

For me it’s, you know, getting a lot of sleep and being well rested, it’s getting outside, it’s eating somewhat reasonably well, although this COVID thing is really… it’s junk food all the time. Knowing that it’s okay to not be okay, for a day or two here and there. If it goes on longer than that, seeking out some professional help is always a good idea. But like everything it’s a roller coaster ride. So you have good days and bad days and I think self-awareness of what the things that make you strong and make you healthy and make you at the top of your game a lot of reflection on yourself and understanding yourself is a really important thing to do and that’s probably a whole other podcast on how you go about doing that.

Ephraim: I happen to love that oxygen mask analogy. That’s fantastic and 100 percent true. So let’s move on to the lightning round and learn a little bit more about our guest today. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Leah: Alright, it’s a good story. My grandfather who passed away in 1994 so he’s been gone a long time now. He worked… well, he did many things through his life. He was the first Treasurer of the Northwest Territories here in Canada, which is kind of a cool fact. And if anyone knows about the Northwest Territories, you know that’s way up north, cold place. But he also was the executive director later in his career with the United Way of Ottawa. He then started the Community Foundation of Ottawa and he went on to found Community Foundations of Canada. So I grew up listening to those stories.

Then my mother along the way did various things but she became his executive assistant at the Community Foundation of Ottawa. Well fast forward, she was the CEO, President and CEO of the Ottawa Community Foundation for 27 years before she retired a number of years ago. So I was living and breathing this stuff and floundering and wondering you know, what am I gonna do with this degree that is sort of meaningless. Naturally you often turn to your parents and their network of people and their network was all nonprofits. That’s how it started. It’s in my blood. I really have never done anything else.

Ephraim: Third generation, I love it! If you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Leah: Oh boy that’s a tough question. I would say it’s not a shakeup, it’s a look back. So many nonprofits have forgotten the basic fundamentals of treating our donors well and treating them with care and have moved on partly from outside pressure, you know, the leadership the board, everyone. You know, we need younger donors, go after those Millennials, we need to fundraise on social media. It’s caused us to forget the basics and boy are we seeing that right now. Those nonprofits who got away from a very strong foundation over the last number of years are really suffering now because they’re not in a good place to be doing donor love, which is what we all need to be doing right now. Loyalty is so important to get us out of this crisis.

Ephraim: Your logo is a canoe. Your website, yourbluecanoe.ca, leads with “you don’t have to paddle alone.” I’m very curious, how did your obsession with canoeing start?

Leah: My grandfather again. I still have his paddle somewhere. I have always loved nature. I’m never happier than if I’m alone in the woods somewhere. In fact I need it for my soul. I hate cities. I live in one because I need to but I’m never comfortable, I’m never relaxed. So I started canoeing when I was born practically.

The story of the blue canoe is that we had bought a new cabin out in the woods by a lake and my job was to find a canoe for us. I went on Kijiji, you know, to find something used, nice old canoe and found one that was owned by a man, an elderly man who had dementia\ and his daughter was selling this canoe for him. So I went out and saw this canoe and more important than the color of the canoe was seeing him looking through the window out at me. This was his beloved. He polished and waxed this canoe every day for 30 years. He was watching me as I looked at the canoe in a beautiful color of blue. It’s kind of like a really soft sky blue. At one point the daughter went in and she came out and she said he approves and that was it. I had my blue canoe. Then shortly after I started my consultancy and I just… it was the story in that man and it was such a poignant moment that that’s what I went with. So I actually own a blue canoe.

Ephraim: That’s amazing. I love that. I love that. That’s wonderful. So let’s turn the tables. Last question you get to ask me a surprise question I have no idea what you’re going to ask me. Go ahead.

Leah: I don’t know what I’m going to ask you either but I’ll think of something…So what I would like to know from you is, how you started in… how did you start in fundraising and nonprofit? Did you have like a pivotal moment?

Ephraim: Nope. I’m gonna tell something that our listeners heard five… three minutes ago. My grandfather was a nonprofit executive and fundraiser. My father, nonprofit executive and fundraiser and it ended up in my blood. But just so you know, I have told my kids in no uncertain terms it kind of ends with my generation. We’re done with this sector. Not we’re done with the sector but I want them to try something outside the nonprofit sector as a profession. Let’s put it that way.

Leah: Well isn’t that cool! We didn’t know we had that in common. Now we do.

Ephraim: That is correct. So yes, amazing. It’s in both of our bloods. Thank you very very much for joining me on the podcast today. I really really appreciate it. Have a wonderful day!

Leah: I will, absolutely. Always good to see you. Have a great evening.

Ephraim: Thanks. Bye!